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on June 12, 2012
Confront and Conceal is, in many ways, the sequel to The Inheritance. The Inheritance was about the foreign policy challenges Obama inherited from Bush. In Confront and Conceal, Sanger examines how Obama has faced those changes and attempts to pin down an "Obama Doctrine." In Inheritance, Sanger presented America's foreign policy challenges as almost siloed. Here, he makes clear that our continued presence in Afghanistan is largely driven by our strategic interests in Pakistan, and those strategic interests are amplified by our interest in not leaving Pakistan with the alternative of China as their major ally and benefactor. And the money to pay for it all comes from the same place. Everything is linked.

Confront and Conceal is organized into five parts, covering: Afghanistan & Pakistan, Iran, drones & cyber warfare, the Arab Spring, and China & North Korea. The section on Afghanistan & Pakistan is the longest by a fair margin, taking up almost one third of the book. China & North Korea, by comparison, is given short shrift. In my mind, it's hard to argue that the Arab Spring deserves twice the space as China & North Korea.

A renewed exuberance for the Afghan war (reflecting Obama's campaign rhetoric) soon faded under sober inspection. Transforming Afghanistan into a modern nation was not and never had been feasible. There is simply no way to replace the development aid and military spending that accounted for the vast majority of Afghanistan's GDP. So our focus shifted to warily watching Pakistan and (rightly) putting our pursuit of al-Qaeda first, even if it means jeopardizing our relationship with Pakistan, as the mission to kill Osama bin Laden did. In the end, we will likely leave Afghanistan little better off than it was (although we lasted longer there than the Soviets), our relationship with Pakistan will remain fraught (but we can never end it lest China fill our void), and al-Qaeda may eventually be able to rebuild, but there is no doubt that we have dealt al-Qaeda a mighty blow. It is the one true success of the last three years.

Iran is one of two instances where Obama's policy of more open engagement backfired on us. It soured our relationship with Israel (with settlements already a sore spot), and we wound up reacting to them instead of being proactive. We launched America's first major cyber attack, dubbed Olympic Games, in conjunction with the Israelis in part to prevent them from preemptively bombing Iran. It was enormously successful on one level. We set Iran's nuclear program back years. But we also inadvertently released a virus into the "wild," and we have merely delayed, not stopped, Iran's progress. Perhaps most disconcerting about this section is an apparent acquiescence to an eventual nuclear Iran on the part of members of the Obama administration (Israel understandably feels different; this is their Cuban Missile Crisis).

Drones and cyber warfare of course get ample attention in the first two parts, but Sanger devotes a (short) section entirely to them as well. They have become integral to American strategy. They were the two covert programs Bush urged Obama to preserve. Obama has not only preserved, but greatly expanded, our efforts on both fronts. And he has been deeply involved; "[p]erhaps not since Lyndon Johnson had sat in the same room, more than four decades before, picking bombing targets in North Vietnam, had a president of the United States been so intimately involved in the step-by-step escalation of an attack on a foreign nation's infrastructure." With cyber warfare, for now all the advantages lay with the attacker: they can wait for just the right moment to strike, the victim won't know who hit him for far too long, and there is no effective deterrence. These are more disconcerting when we consider our own vulnerabilities. The attacks on Iran also showed that cyber attacks can cause physical damage.

The Arab Spring caught the administration flat-footed. But who could have ever predicted something like that? The better measure is how we reacted. Obama bumbled with Egypt, hit all the right notes in Lebanon (where Sanger sees American interests as small), and has been helpless to prevent the slaughter Syria (which Sanger sees as much more important to American interests). But for all its greater strategic importance, Syria is challenging in all the ways Lebanon was not, as Sanger takes pains to show.

The label `China and North Korea' is a bit of a misnomer. It's really a section on China with a few mentions of North Korea. But only because there isn't much to say. How could we have learned so little in the past three years about a country that we once called part of an axis of evil? Sanger has little to nothing new to say about new North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Open engagement hurt us in China too--many Chinese leaders saw it as weakness. Americans often view China as monolithic and under the utter control of Hu Jintao, but Sanger explains that efforts to decentralize eroded the power of the central government, and American intelligence officers now recognize three factions: isolationists, those who see us as a friendly rival, and those who see us as a less-than-friendly rival.

Sanger's primary goal is to pin down an Obama Doctrine (words the administration adamantly refuses to utter). He ultimately boils it down to a strategy of confrontation and concealment. Obama is no less likely than Bush to order a preemptive strike. He is far more likely to do it with drones, cyber weapons, or special forces. Ground wars are to be avoided at all costs. It's too early to judge Obama's presidency, though. Early on, Sanger points out that at this point in their presidencies, Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't look like debacles, Nixon hadn't gone to China, and Truman's policy of containment was still an experiment.

Where I think Sanger (and Obama) get it wrong is in the idea of a "new" military. A smaller, more flexible military that can strike but isn't built to wage wars of occupation. But we thought much the same in the 90s. We will, at some point, feel we need to go into a country and wage war on the ground, and we will need ground troops to do it. And that ability gives us no small measure of "soft power."

This review is of the Kindle edition. Photos are in the middle, as is most common in a traditional book, instead of at the end as is most common in Kindle books in my experience. Reference material begins at the 86% mark. It consists of Acknowledgements, A Note on Sources, and Endnotes (linked both ways).
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